Thoughts on the Role of Working Principles in Company Culture 🎱

Being part of building a team up from scratch has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences for me since moving to Berlin almost six years ago now. Living through a team coming together with all its highs and lows, no week was ever the same. It made me rethink what I thought it takes to bring people together.

I’d dizzy myself with questions like “What is the one thing we must get right in putting together a productive team? Who are we as a team, what makes us unique so people want to work here? What even is company culture? How do we know if we’re on the right track?”. 🤔

In my experience, having a clear set of working principles, (or if you like virtues or traits), that codify the unique habits and views of a team and help the team orientate decisions, have made the ride a little smoother. I was lucky that the ventures I got to be part of were very early with thinking about how to build a team in an intentional way.

Here’s seven highlights from my experience of what I think we did well in the process of defining a team culture with clear working principles.

1 | Self-Awareness of Daily Practices

In an early stage team, I saw how much of the culture is set by the founders, who are often the most senior leaders in the organisation too. That’s why I’ve seen the most resilient team cultures come from those leaders who continuously and seriously invest time in understanding themselves and what drives their decision making at work.

After all, not only will you be a better leader for it, but those daily practices is also what is unique about the company🐣. These are collectively an important reason for why people will join and follow you as their leader.

2 | The Gap

Adding on to your own working principles, a thorough examination of the rest of the team was also a helpful part of the process. Although you have the need to create principles that are visionary and motivating, I saw it’s easy to go too aspirational and disconnet from where the team actually was.

You then quickly become blind to future frustrations of why the team isn’t performing as you might have expected. I feel the exercise always revealed key mismatches in hiring and informed important changes in the team structure.

3 | Acknowledging Your Shadow 🌚

Besides the daily practices you develop from your working principles, I think there’s another important layer when you really start digging deeper. If you look at your behaviour there’s usually one underlying value driving choices that you don’t necessarily want to acknowledge.

Something you’d answer to the question of what one truth an alien third person be able to observe about you in how you make decisions if they followed you for a day or week? It’s something I’ve heard is called a “shadow value”, and if I’m not totally off this all originated from theories of shadow self from Carl Jung.

I’ve experienced that being aware of exactly what the less helpful dynamics are within yourself as well as the rest of the team gives you a chance at future damage control. Acknowledging your shadow value is just one more way to explicitly decide what behaviours you want to incentivise and which not.

Because if you are in a leadership position in a company it’s up to you to make explicit what you feel is aligned with the long term vision of the organisation.

4 | Listening to the Team

Shaping clear principles for the team to work with is in part also a collective process. Your team members will be more motivated and have faster buy-in to changes when they feel their voices are seen and heard. They will accept not every opinion will be granted if you make clear for what you need their input for.

You just frame the extent of that input with surveys or votings — a quick Typeform to answer “what do you feel represented most strongly in the team to the outside?, what one trait do you think brings us most energy as a team? or what one trait could the team not function without for making difficult decisions” for example.

5 | Actionable Principles 🏋️‍♀️

I found it most helpful when those traits or principles were made as actionable, adoptable and applicable into the daily routine of the team as possible. I’m talking go knee deep in detail on how the trait plays out, like eg. “customer love for our customer care agents means all external emails are responded to within 24 hours”- kind of specific.

Don’t forget that your notion of customer love might translate differently with Tom, Dick or Harry, so by breaking down what the values mean in each team, in their work and in the context of company goals help decrease misunderstandings. Then you can start drumming these in at every daily Stand-Up or company Town Hall to remind the team why they are here.

6 | 🦴 Backbone for Decisions

A shared set of principles is what you as a team agree to use for making decisions. Those principles therefore has to permeate everything from decision making in interviewing, hiring decisions, surveys and feedback converstions. It reinforces belonging in your team.

Especially in building the hiring machinery, I spent a lot of time formulating questions for each principle and equally what a good answer looked like to help us all make faster decisions.

7 | Revisiting Regularly as the Company Grows

And finally, one other big observation I saw from how team cultures form in early stage ventures is the sheer speed of change 🌪. It’s easy to get attached to a set of collective habits that made a team flow at one stage of the organisation.

We were quite rigorous on iterating, acknowledging different needs coming up as the team morphed. We kept updating the existing working principles by keeping a regular and close pulse on the needs specific to the stage of the company and an eye on where we wanted to go.

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Curious to hear what my observations about work principles brought up with you.

Thanks for reading!

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Mia Wähälä

Mia Wähälä

Musings on building great teams and tribes.